Monday 26 August 2002

Gleaning

Agnes Varda, The Gleaners and IAgnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I is the best film I’ve seen for a long time—certainly the finest documentary essay since Chris Marker’s Sunless. When I walked out of the theater this afternoon, I was torn between buying a ticket for the next session and going for a long walk to savor the deep impressions left by this film.

Gleaners come after the harvest to scour the fields and orchards for unwanted vegetables and fruit (though one of Varda’s interviewees makes a careful distinction between gleaners and pickers, based on whether the scavenged items sprout from the ground or hang from trees or vines).

Varda—who made her first feature, La Pointe Courte, in 1954—starts with Millet’s painting of women gleaning wheat, then moves from the countryside to the city where people glean from market refuse or supermarket rubbish bins—from desperation, as an act of political principle, or for a variety of other reasons.

It’s tempting to think abstractly of filming (or any kind of art-making) as gleaning and Varda encourages this to a degree by interviewing a number of artists who use found objects as the basis of their artworks. But, in an interview with Andrea Meyer of indieWIRE, she cautions against taking the parallel too far:

It is true that filming, especially a documentary, is gleaning. Because you pick what you find; you bend; you go around; you are curious; you try to find out where are things. But, you cannot push the analogy further, because we don’t just film the leftovers. Even though there is some analogy about people that society pushes aside. But it’s too heavy an analogy.

The Gleaners and I is fashioned from many intertwined parts: trenchant social criticism, meditation on approaching death, analysis of agricultural practices, travel diary, homage to the irrepressible human spirit. It is, by turns, sad and comic, peopled with wonderful characters, such as a man who collects cast-off junk from outside people’s houses.

“Look,” he tells Varda, holding up a map of the town where he lives. “The city council supports us by publishing this map that even shows the days we can collect from each area.”

Varda gently suggests that the map has been provided for the opposite purpose: to advise the townspeople when they are allowed to throw away their unwanted items.

“Well,” he admits (speaking for all of us), “I suppose I’m seeing it from my own perspective.”

Agnès Varda is mentioned briefly twice in James Monaco’s The New Wave, which focuses on the big five: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette (hardly surprising, given the degree of respect accorded women filmmakers when the book was written in 1976). Richard Neupert’s A History of the French New Wave Cinema promises to treat Varda more seriously.

The Gleaners and I is a sublime example of the film as essay, a form most closely associated with Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, two of my favorite filmmakers—perhaps that’s why I loved it so much, why I just ordered the DVD, and why I’m eager to see more of her movies.

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